Is the pen mightier than the rocket launcher?
On Nov. 19, singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. From his home in San Francisco, he spoke about old songs, new books and raising (as well as catching) hell.
This SOCAN award isn’t your first trophy, and it won’t be your last. But how does it feel?
It feels good. It’s nice to be highly thought of, or even thought of at all. I like that this isn’t a competitive thing. I’ve never been big on imposing competitive attitudes on music.
You’ll be recognized at Monday’s gala at Roy Thomson Hall with Joel Zimmerman (a.k.a. deadmau5) and Trooper. The latter spoke for a generation, I think, when they sang “Raise a little hell, raise a little hell, raise a little hell.” Are you familiar with that song?
Familiar might be overstating it, but I do remember hearing it.
In your own way, with your music, have you raised a little hell?
Well, it’s in the spirit of rock and roll to do that. And I came into the world of music influenced from a few different directions, rock and roll being one of them. If you stand outside the mainstream and offer any kind of social critique, then there is a certain amount of hell raising, in the way I think you mean it.
I mean it in a If I Had a Rocket Launcher kind of way.
There was a Toronto critic, when Stealing Fire came out in 1984, who basically said that all the copies of If I Had a Rocket Launcher should be rounded up and melted down. [The critic was The Globe’s Liam Lacey]. He hated it. He called it vile.
There’s something to be said for that, isn’t there? Even if it’s negative?
I don’t want to be hated. At the same time, if you speak what you believe to be true, you’re going to get a reaction from people. Not everybody is going to have the same idea of what is true. To me, the writer clearly didn’t understand where the song was coming from. But anybody’s truth certainly can smack anybody else in the face, in ways they don’t like. So, if you offer that, you stand a chance to be both praised and maligned.
When music fans hear a favourite song from the past, it can strikes them powerfully, euphorically. Do you feel that same kick when you perform those songs?
It’s an interesting question. The answer is that it’s not the same when you’re doing it for a living. For me, I have an emotional connection with the events that inspired the songs. So, I don’t like to sing If I Had a Rocket Launcher, for example, because I don’t want to go there. But to properly perform the song I have to. The same is true for Wondering Where the Lions Are, or for any song. I remember where I was when I wrote it . Sometimes that’s bittersweet, sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s plain horrible.
You’re revisiting those contexts now, as you write your autobiography. How’s that going?
I’m working with a co-writer. I originally wasn’t, but I was getting bogged down, and the publishers were getting anxious. I found that it was really easy to write about the early stuff, partly because the memories are simpler and more stark, and partly because they’re distant in time, and many of the participants are dead. You don’t have to worry about offending them.
Your long-time manager Bernie Finkelstein released his autobiography recently. Did you read it?
I did. I thought it was surprisingly gentle. I was expecting some things that I would have to be nervous about. But he’s so gracious to everybody in the book. I found it quite touching, actually.
What would you be nervous about?
He’s been a very necessary buffer between me and the business. It’s interesting in his book how involved he gets in the Canadian Content issue, and I found the insider view of that to be very interesting. I found myself thinking, “well, gee, it would have been nice if I’d been more there for him emotionally for some of that stuff,” because he’s always been so supportive of me.
He’s not a shy guy. Has he given you any tips on writing an autobiography?
[Laughs]. No, not really. He hasn’t seen any of it. I know he’s dying to, and I’m sure I’ll hear about it when he does.
This interview has been condensed and edited.